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Blackman, Peter McFarren (1909–1993), political activist, was born in Barbados on 28 June 1909, the son of Samuel Blackman, stonemason. He attended the two best high schools on the island, Harrison College and then Codrington College. With support from various organizations he then studied at St Augustine's Theological College in Canterbury from 1933 to 1936 for a licence in theology awarded by the University of Durham. Sent out to the Gambia, he challenged his bishop over the lower pay received by black missionaries than by Europeans. Already doubting his faith, he left the church, returned to Barbados, and then re-migrated to England in 1937. Unable to obtain any suitable work, despite his degree, during the Second World War he worked on the assembly line for bombers, and after the war as a fitter for British Rail. In 1949 he worked briefly for the Ministry of Education as a temporary clerk. How he earned his living after this is not known.

Blackman was under MI5 surveillance from 1937, when he joined the Communist Party: his mail was opened, and his phone was tapped. Sir Vernon Kell, head of MI5, believed that in 1938 Blackman was ‘the negro organiser of the Colonial Department of the Communist Party’ and that he was demoted from this position in 1940. In 1941, according to the MI5 files, Blackman quarrelled with the party on the ground that they regarded colonial activity merely as ‘a side line’ (TNA: PRO, KV/1838). Blackman was later scathing about racial attitudes within the party. Nevertheless he joined the League Against Imperialism, a Communist organization, and its affiliate, the Negro Welfare Association, which he chaired from late 1938. The Negro Welfare Association held large public meetings on a range of colonial and black British issues, such as the imprisonment of Trinidadian and Jamaican trade union activists. In 1938 Blackman helped set up and became the secretary of the Fabian Colonial Bureau's West Indian Affairs Committee established under the chairmanship of Arthur Creech Jones MP, which aimed to promote Caribbean interests in parliament.

From January 1938 Blackman was on the executive committee of the League of Coloured Peoples, and edited two issues of its journal; his long and outspoken editorials criticized the governments of the empire. According to the MI5 report he was asked to leave the league as his ‘language was so vitriolic … Moody had received a number of complaints’ (TNA: PRO, KV/1838). In 1939 he was the president of the discussion group at Aggrey House, the government-run hostel for African students. The students had many problems with the Colonial Office, which believed that the discussion group encouraged ‘disaffection and disloyalty among these students’ (ibid.).

Through the Negro Welfare Association, Blackman worked closely with other black organizations criticizing colonial policies, such as the International African Service Bureau, the West African Students Union, the Coloured Film Artists Association, the India League, and the Caribbean Labour Congress. He was one of the organizers and speakers at the African Peoples' Democracy and World Peace conference in July 1939.

Blackman was a correspondent for a number of east European papers, and his book of poems, My Song is for All Men, was published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1952; another, Footprints, was published posthumously by Smokestack Books in 2013. He also had articles and poems published in Présence Africaine, Black Liberator, and a number of east European papers. (Perhaps his most successful poem was ‘Stalingrad’, written in 1944; a recording of him reciting the poem was included on Robert Wyatt's album Nothing Can Stop Us in 1982.) During the Second World War he had been a regular speaker on the BBC programme for the West Indies, but at the beginning of the cold war he was banned. He was very forthright in his criticism of the British: in his ‘Letter to an English intellectual’ published in the New Statesman and Nation in 1948 he wrote: ‘I have lived in the little island of Barbados in close contact with the British and only the British. In these circumstances we could not possibly be civilised … it is too late for me to go to Oxford and profit from a liberal education which could teach me to swallow my intelligence and my self-respect’ (New Statesman and Nation, 11 Dec 1948). He often spoke of the problems of being a black man in England in the 1930s: ‘you couldn't get service, even in a café, never mind restaurants … In a carman's pull-up: “we don't serve niggers here” … It was the same with hotels, flats, lodgings and pubs … You couldn't get work—no matter what you did’ (personal knowledge).

Blackman married, on 29 July 1940, Winifred Irene Lottie Scott, of mixed Jamaican and English descent, daughter of Charles Emanuel Scott, motor driver. They had two sons and a daughter but the marriage was an unhappy one, and after they separated their three children were put into care.

After the war Blackman visited Hungary and Czechoslovakia a number of times, on Communist Party business, and the party moved him from its West India committee to the new Africa committee. In 1948 he attended the Congress of Intellectuals in Defence of Peace, in Wroclaw, Poland. In 1949 he attended the World Peace Conference in Paris. In 1950 he was again in Paris at the headquarters of the Partisans for Peace organization, which had been established at the Wroclaw gathering. Among Blackman's friends and close colleagues were Reginald Bridgeman (chairman of the League Against Imperialism) and Desmond Buckle of the Communist Party of Great Britain; his relationship with George Padmore appears to have been somewhat ambivalent. He served as an assistant to Paul Robeson on his visit to the UK in 1949, and then travelled with him on a tour of eastern Europe and Russia, where both attended the 150th Pushkin anniversary celebrations.

Blackman appears to have withdrawn from political activity in the 1950s, possibly as a result of disillusionment with the Soviet Union. He remained in London, living latterly in a flat in Fitzjohns Avenue, Belsize Park. He died at the Marie Curie Hospice, 11 Lyndhurst Gardens, Camden, on 8 August 1993 from prostate cancer. His elder son, Peter Scott Blackman (1941–2012)—who described his father as ‘an intellectual giant, but an emotional dwarf’ (Barrett)—later became chief executive of the Afiya Trust, formed to campaign against racial inequalities in health care.

Marika Sherwood

Sources  

J. R. Hooker, Black revolutionary (1967) · P. Fryer, Staying power: the history of black people in Britain (1984) · M. B. Duberman, Paul Robeson (1988) · S. Howe, Anticolonialism in British politics: the left and the end of empire, 1918–1964 (1993) · History Workshop Journal, 37/1 (1994), 266–7 · H. Adi, West Africans in Britain, 1900–1960: nationalism, pan-Africanism and communism (1998) · D. Jarrett-Macauley, The life of Una Marson, 1905–1965 (1998) · J. Derrick, Africa's ‘agitators’ (2008) · O. Barrett, ‘Past troubles, future triumph’, olbarrett.wordpress.com/2011/10/23/past-troubles-future-triumph-2/ · ‘Peter McFarren Blackman’, TNA: PRO, KV/1838 · ‘Blackman’, US National Archives, RG59 861.415–549, box 6660 · personal knowledge (2012) · private information (2012) [Dean and chapter of Canterbury; U. Durham, 1993] · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

TNA: PRO, KV/1838 · US National Archives, RG59 861.415–549, box 6660